Military service requires trust in your colleagues like no other career. With lives on the line, it is no wonder veterans feel such a strong connection to their brothers in arms. When this trust is violated, the fallout can be incredibly traumatic. Dealing with sexual assault of any kind is difficult, but when victims must continue to work side by side their abuser, healing is virtually impossible. Even after they leave the service, the men and women who have suffered from Military Sexual Trauma, or MST, can struggle to cope.
Much has been said about the women victims of MST. Indeed, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that one in five women veterans using their healthcare screening tools are found to suffer from MST. While women certainly make up the majority of MST victims, men too can find themselves struggling in the wake of sexual trauma. Admitting you have been raped, sodomized or sexually harassed is difficult for both genders, but the stigma of MST can weigh especially heavy on men. Often dismissed as a women’s issue, MST male victims are often told to ignore unwanted sexual harassment and abuse.
Reporting a traumatic experience can be nearly as distressing as the abuse itself. Service members frequently endure re-traumatization when trying to advocate for themselves. They face ostracization from their peers and are often the subject of unkind gossip. Even worse is the potential for retaliation from the person’s abuser. A 2004 report found that two-thirds of victims of MST were dissatisfied with the outcome of their reporting of abuse.
Given the lack of awareness surrounding victims of MST, there is also a lack of resources. Because MST is considered an experience, it is not a medical condition diagnosed by the VA, typically the VA would diagnose the veteran with PTSD related to MST. While there is a VA inpatient facility for victims of MST in Florida, the waiting list is long. Though victim advocates are working towards expanding such resources, countless veterans struggle to carry on despite their untreated trauma.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is commonly associated with combat veterans who witness the atrocities of war. That is far from the only cause of the disorder, though. Veterans who suffer MST frequently develop PTSD in the wake of the sexual harassment and assault. Any time a person is pressured into unwanted sexual activity, PTSD can ensue. While it is normal for a person to struggle with disturbing memories of a traumatic event, the lingering effects of anxiety and depression, among other symptoms, could indicate that they suffer from PTSD.
Many MST victims with PTSD struggle to get the rest they need. Plagued by nightmares and memories, some experience insomnia. In turn, this impacts their mood – emotional outbursts are not uncommon in people with PTSD. Such outbursts combined with a feeling of social isolation can cause some victims to seek solace in drugs or alcohol. While PTSD symptoms can come and go, they can also linger for years if untreated.
VA allows victims to file for disability benefits from PTSD stemming from MST. As with all VA benefit applications, though, filing PTSD MST claims can be daunting. PTSD claims require documentation of the traumatic event.. Those applying for VA disability for MST may opt to submit other forms of evidence that the harassment or abuse occurred, such as police reports or mental health records. Even statements from family and friends about the victim’s changes in behavior and mood or personnel records showing a change in performance after the event may be enough to support a claim.
The VA PTSD symptoms will be factored into a claim to determine percentage of disability. Depression, anxiety and drug or alcohol abuse can all indicate that a veteran is coping with a traumatic event. When a person’s quality of work suffers, or they experience inexplicable financial or social upheaval, it may be included as evidence of PTSD. For some, the symptoms of PTSD may not appear until years after a person experienced sexual assault or harassment. It is never too late to file for disability benefits. In fact, many MST victims with PTSD who have their claims denied initially choose to re-apply.
With more media attention and general awareness of MST and its impact on servicemen and women, the VA has begun training personnel on processing MST-related claims. This training began in 2011, so victims who applied before that time and were denied should consider refiling their claim. With a better understanding of how MST’s impact a person, VA staff may be more open to approving claims they previously denied.
Though awareness of MST is indeed increasing, the stigma associated with it is not going away. Until victims feel supported by their colleagues and protected from their abusers, this stigma is unlikely to change. The choice to advocate for oneself takes a great deal of courage. While perhaps not the kind of bravery we first associate veterans with, the decision to speak out is just as commendable as any military service.
Our office works with many veterans pursuing PTSD due to MST cases. If you have been denied your PTSD claim, or you feel you were underrated, please contact Veterans Law Group.